Although Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir termed Zarif’s gesture as “laughable,” there are signs that a slow thaw may be in the works, the result of a shifting regional landscape.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia fault line runs deep, as they back different sides in the Syria and Yemen wars. In September 2015, Iranian officials blamed Saudi officials for mismanagement following a stampede during the hajj in Mecca that left over 2,400 dead, including more than 400 Iranians. In January 2016, Iranian crowds ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the kingdom’s execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Riyadh broke ties with Iran soon after.
Despite Jubeir’s reaction to Zarif, the trend lines may signal a subtle reset. First, Iran and Saudi Arabia worked out arrangements for Iranian participation in the hajj this year, after Iran banned its citizens from pilgrimage last year. Both governments have downplayed pending visits by Saudi and Iranian officials to inspect diplomatic sites.
More importantly, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be seeking to cut his losses on costly involvement in the Syria and Yemen wars. United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said Sept. 7 that the Syria war is winding down, and that “for the opposition, the message is very clear: If they were planning to win the war, facts are proving that is not the case. So now it's time to win the peace.” Saudi Arabia has continued to engage and rally the Syrian opposition to unite in support of UN-brokered discussions of a political transition.
In Yemen, the kingdom is facing increased international scrutiny for airstrikes on civilian targets.
The toll of the war on Yemen, including a cholera outbreak affecting over 500,000 people, more than half of them children, has been a public relations nightmare for Saudi Arabia — with no end in sight and the prospects of a chronic failed state on the Arabian Peninsula.
Another sign of shifts in Yemen’s political winds is the role of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has attempted to patch up recent disagreements with his Houthi allies. Many believe Saleh may be playing all sides, including Saudi Arabia, in a bid to retain his decadeslong role as Yemen’s ultimate power broker.
The tipping point for Saudi Arabia may eventually be buyer’s remorse on the consequences of isolating Qatar. By shattering [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council [PGCC] unity, Riyadh and its partners have lost their strategic depth, compelling states to cut their own deals with Iran. Not surprisingly, Qatar is first in, as we explained here last month. Oman has always preferred dialogue over confrontation. One wonders if Dubai, which has maintained solid commercial ties with Iran, may eventually influence Abu Dhabi, which has taken the lead on a much tougher line on Iran.
This all came to a head last week during the visit of the emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to Washington. The emir was quick to anticipate the crisis caused by the rupture with Qatar in June and immediately set about seeking to broker a reconciliation. During Sabah’s visit, a call brokered by US President Donald Trump between the Saudi crown prince and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani appears to have gone badly, ending in further recriminations from both sides.
In retrospect, the US-Saudi-Islamic summit in May may have served as the high-water mark of an approach to regional affairs that was over before it started. Since the summit, the [PGCC] has been facing its worse crisis ever. Meanwhile, Iran is building a network of partnerships — Iraq, Syria, Qatar, Turkey and Hamas, both Sunni and Shiite — which makes it increasingly the center of the action. The Saudi crown prince, who has set an ambitious course of economic and social modernization for his country, understands better than most the costs of declining assets. There are deep reasons for Saudi-Iranian hostility, and no turnaround happens quickly, especially in the Middle East. But the dividends of building bridges, rather than burning them, may be the lessons learned that will inform a reset in both Riyadh, Tehran and other regional capitals.